In recent months, China has sparred with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan over its extravagant territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, where Taiwan also has claims, and the West Philippine Sea. These conflicts have undermined regional security, impeded investment planning and sparked an undeclared military contest between China and its regional counterweight, the US.
Indeed, US Vice President Joe Biden recently made it clear that the resources and attention that the US is allocating to the Asia-Pacific region are aimed primarily at enhancing security and stability.
The US has “set about ... strengthening our alliances, deepening security partnerships, and investing like never before in regional institutions to help manage disputes peacefully,” Biden said.
The US’ increasing involvement in Asia has already bolstered the efforts of ASEAN to move toward a full-fledged diplomatic and economic “community,” akin in many ways to the European Economic Community that preceded the EU. The ASEAN Community — which ASEAN leaders hope to establish by 2015 — would be a concert of nations, bound together by a shared commitment to sustainable development, that is outward-looking, resilient, peaceful, stable and prosperous.
ASEAN’s pursuit of deeper integration follows a global trend toward using regional groupings and partnerships to gain economies of scale and enlarge “home” markets. At the same time, it reflects growing anxiety, stemming largely from China’s increasingly aggressive posture toward many of its neighbors.
China appears determined to reshape the international security and economic system that the US built after World War II and has led ever since — a system that has long protected the US’ Asian allies. As China’s power grows, the US is finding it increasingly difficult to preserve a regional balance of power that is favorable to its interests. As a result, increased burden-sharing among Asia-Pacific countries is needed to confront shared threats like cross-border terrorism, pandemic diseases, climate change and environmental degradation, and trafficking of people, drugs and weapons.
Fortunately, the region’s leaders seem to recognize this need. For example, defense spending is on the rise, even without cajoling from the US. India and Japan have recently launched new capital ships, and are deepening their military cooperation. The Philippines is renewing its old defense ties with the US, and deepening its nascent links with Japan.
However these pragmatic moves should not be viewed as evidence that Asia is on the verge of violent conflict. Despite their legitimate fears of military escalation in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia’s citizens remain optimistic that a peaceful, diplomatic resolution will be achieved, and that China will fulfill its commitment to forge a code of conduct for activities in ASEAN’s maritime heartland. The apparent inclination of China’s new leaders to work within a global rules-based system reinforces this hope.
Moreover, ASEAN’s pursuit of further integration is not rooted exclusively in concerns associated with China’s rise as a regional and global power. Long-standing threats to internal stability — including deep economic inequality, ethnic and religious conflict, and, in some cases, demands for territorial autonomy — remain acute. Just as the wealth created by European integration helped to reconcile historic divisions, such as those that once roiled northern Ireland, a genuine economic community in Southeast Asia can provide the dynamism needed to address deep-rooted domestic disputes effectively.